The Dark Art of the Telephone Depth Interview

Who's out there?

Old telephone by macinate, on Flickr

People aren’t very keen on telephone interviews.    The phone interview tends to be seen as the (deeply) impoverished relation of the face-to-face interview.  There are plenty of obvious negatives: on the phone, you have no eye contact, no body language, and precious little context.

It’s true that the lack of visual information is a distinct drawback.   There are advantages, though.  Personally, I love telephone interviews.     They can be direct, freeing, and incredibly stimulating to conduct.  People have told me things on the phone that they probably never would in a face-to-face interview.

However, to make phone interviews work as proper, high quality conversations, you need to be highly prepared and work that little bit harder.  Here are my 9 top tips to turn you from shaky salesman into smooth late-night radio host.

1. Have a simple interview guide ready

You need to know your subject inside out before you start contacting people.   Write yourself a concise interview guide  which uses plenty of simple open questions.   The psychology-style interview schedule (20 simple questions) tends to be much easier to work with than a detailed 6-page guide.   Make sure that you really understand the brief before you start – if someone is busy, your time can be cut short.

If you are ringing to make appointments, you’ll find that a proportion of people will give you an interview then and there – you need to be ready to go.

2. Set up and test your equipment in advance

If you’re going to record your interviews, you need to test the whole process.  I use a simple Olympus voice recorder with a telephone jack which plugs into my office line right at the wall.    You can buy them from Maplin in the UK.   Respondents need to know in advance that you will want to record, and you need to ask their permission again at the start of the interview.

Test and double-test the recording.

Also test the phone-to-PC transfer process.  Voice recorders typically have enough memory for a heavy day’s worth of interviewing; unlike old school tapes, it can be painful to label them properly.  Make sure you can transfer and name your files in good time.

A headset is also good for avoiding a cricked neck and sweaty palms.

Have some water nearby, for your throat.

3. Pace your schedule appropriately

Telephone interviews often start late as the respondent forgets the appointment/ takes one last call/ wanders off.  Don’t schedule your interviews too close together, or you will end up chasing your tail all day.   As a guide, an one-hour face-to-face interview will probably take 25-45 minutes on the phone.  People are a little bit briefer on the phone.

Allow a 15-minute gap between interviews to jot down some notes and make the mental break between one interview and the nest.

You need to allow a bigger break after 3 interviews.  Telephone interviews make you even more antsy and high than face-to-face interviews and by the end of the day you will be exhausted.  Build some time in to eat your lunch.  It will be worth it.

4. Introduce and explain yourself

The first few minutes of a telephone interview are critical to the success of the call.   Before calling, focus on the person that you are calling, what you know about them and what you want to learn from them.   Still yourself, if that makes sense.    When you get through, introduce yourself.   Check that your respondent is able to talk; remind them of the topic and how long you think it will take; explain privacy policies and if necessary gain permission to use the voice recorder.

In these initial moments, it’s very important to give the person on the other end of the line time to answer.   People are often very anxious on the phone at first. As soon as they realise that they are not talking to a double-glazing salesman, they begin to relax.

I usually explain that the interview will run like an informal conversation, and give them a quick outline. I then pitch into a very general, non-threatening  introductory question, such as ‘Tell me a little about your organisation and what you do.’   As they talk, listen and comment back, if you can, so that your interviewee knows that you are concentrating on them.

5. Match the respondent’s mood and pace

As you ask your first questions,  tune in to your respondent’s mood and way of speaking.  If they are brusque and quickfire, quicken your own pace to match while staying friendly and ultra-professional.   You are an ambassador for the research that you are doing and the organisation (s) that you are working for.  A no-nonsense individual will still give you a good interview provided that you don’t waffle.  This where knowing your brief becomes vital.

6.  Turn up the volume (project yourself strongly)

Because there is no body language, you will usually have to work harder to communicate a strong sense of yourself as a thoughtful, involved interviewer.

Before I begin a sequence of interviews, I think through my approach and I usually start by adopting a madly friendly, upbeat, intelligent persona which is ramped up at least 30% from my normal laid-back self.    I am probably more informal and straight-talking on the phone than in a face-to-face situation.    I also ‘give back more’ – they can’t see me nodding thoughtfully, for example, so I will make ‘uhuh’ noises and I will comment a lot more as we move from topic to topic:  ‘That’s very interesting’.

I’ll also self-disclose more, where it’s appropriate: the interviewee can probably tell my gender, my age and where I grew up, but that’s about it.

Prompting or giving examples of what you mean is also very helpful.

The embarrassing thing about telephone interviewing is that you quite quickly develop a whole new persona.  I like to think I sound like Kirsty Young; my accent usually drifts from Modified Weedy Scottish to Authentic Hard Scottish when talking to anyone north of Watford.

7. Listen intensely

If you have good questions and you’re genuinely having a conversation, it should flow nicely.  You need to listen hard, to comment back, to question, and to spot ambivalences and incoherency in the acccount that you’re hearing.

8. Sensitive questions are possible

As long as you have a good sense of connection with the person at the end of the line, you can ask anything.  People can be very forthcoming in a way that they might not be in person; plus as you are listening, you can often follow up on issues and concerns that are lurking in the conversational spaces.

As with a face-to-face situation, asking a simple question and then staying silent usually works well; but it only works, I think, if you trust each other. Again, you can telegraph your intentions: ‘The next question is a bit sensitive.’ ‘You might think this is silly, but…’

9. Finally

Close your interview gently, in general conversation.  Thank them lots.   When done, switch off the tape and make some brief notes about your impressions.   After a few interviews, you’ll need to decompress: but hopefully, all that work will have resulted in a good experience for both sides, and a thoughtful, productive interview with plenty of insights.

Any more tips?